Sizing up Apple TV (take 2)'s HD

Ben Drawbaugh
B. Drawbaugh|02.13.08

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Ben Drawbaugh
February 13th, 2008
In this article: apple, hd, other hardware, otherhardware
Sizing up Apple TV (take 2)'s HD
Apple TV Transformers
There's no doubt we love HD -- we just can't get enough of it, and while not all HD is created equal, we've still got plenty of love to around. That being said, we demand the best, and if given two sources for the same content, we're going to choose the the top dog. As you can imagine, we were excited to try out Apple TV's HD downloads, but like many others, we were very skeptical about the quality -- considering the 5Mbps bitrate limit. We consider both HD DVD and Blu-ray the best in HD picture and audio quality, so it's only natural for us to compare anything new to the reining kings, and although the Apple TV doesn't take the crown, we were impressed enough to say it could be second place.

These images are from the movie Transformers displayed on a 60-inch Kuro (PDP-6010FD). Both players were set to their native resolution (HD-A30, 1080p24; ATV 720p30). We specifically choose an explosion because we believe that HD content is only as good as it's worst looking scene and explosions are hard to compress.

HD DVD - Transformers

If you couldn't tell from the pictures already, they both look very good, and although the HD DVD version has more detail and no compression artifacts at all, the Apple TV has less compression then expected. We'd go as far as to say that compression artifacts are very unnoticeable for the most part. This is about the same quality as we've seen with the Xbox 360 Market Place, but unfortunately, we didn't get the chance to compare. As many cable subscribers will tell you, there is usually more compression artifacts on HD cable and more specifically HD VOD. As much as we'd love to compare HD content from every source, it's a logistical nightmare, but iLounge was able to compare Live Free or Die Hard on the Apple TV to HD VOD and witnessed exactly what we'd suspected: cable did look worse. Aside from compression artifacts, the cable version has other problems too, like cropping and over compressed audio -- both of which are enough to make us yearn for DVD. But as we all know, not all HD DVD movies are the same quality and of course the same is true for cable -- and we assume for the Apple TV. So while we don't think it's fair to say the Apple TV will always look better than cable, in most cases we think it will.

Apple TV HD

As much as we hate to admit it, picture and sound quality isn't always the most important factor when choosing content; there's price and convenience to consider as well. This is the one place where cable's VOD rules; no up front costs, the movies start instantly and you can jump to any part, anytime with no buffering. With HD DVD or Blu-ray, you have to either rent or buy a movie which is anything but instant -- but might be faster since the movies are available 30 days before ATV or VOD. The 24 hour windows is of course a drag, almost as much as the fact that you can't buy HD movies outright. As for the price, it is pretty much a wash between the ATV and HD DVD or Blu-ray -- give or take $100. At $5 a movie, it really depends on how many flicks you watch. If you watch more than three movies a month, it's cheaper to just stick with Netflix. We'd say that the TV shows are a good advantage to the Apple TV, but none of them seem to be in HD yet, which brings us to the biggest drawback of the Apple TV: selection. Out of the gate there were only about 75 movies available in HD, and only a handful were recently released -- this is less than a fourth of what HD DVD or Blu-ray has.

Ultimatly, we'll stick with HD DVD and Blu-ray, but we're sure you expected us to say that. In fact, we are more excited that we can now transcode our own HD content with DD 5.1 audio and copy it to our Apple TV without hacking than we are about Apple's HD content.
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